Thirteen Strings: Insightful concert remembers the 100th anniversary of the CNIB

The victims: Johan Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel were both treated by Joh Taylor who reportedly blinded Bach and seriously impaired Handel.

J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel never met during their lifetimes, even though at one point the great composers lived only a very few miles apart. But they share a bitter connection.

Both men were victims of a medical charlatan who claimed he could cure impaired sight.

His name was John Taylor and he was active during the 18th century in Europe. Taylor, who called himself the Chevalier John Taylor, roamed the capitals of Europe ingratiating himself with people of authority including King George II of England for whom Taylor served as the royal eye surgeon.

He was friendly with such people as the Viennese patron of composers Gottfried van Swieten. And, among others, he operated on the writer Edward Gibbon.

In an 18th century version of the travelling medicine show huckster, Taylor is said to have travelled the continent in a coach painted with the images of eyes, operating on people in the public square. He would treat cataracts and glaucoma. When he treated a cataract he would couch the lens by pushing it to the bottom of the eye.

John Taylor was an 18th century huckster who operated on the eyes of Bach and Handel.

In March 1750, he operated on Bach, leaving him blind. Bach died soon after. In August 1758, Taylor worked on Handel, who would die a year later.

What’s the point of recounting this story? Well, it’s part of one of the most elaborate concerts ever staged by Ottawa’s chamber orchestra Thirteen Strings.

According to music director Kevin Mallon, the idea emerged out of a conversation with Ottawa writer Kevin Burns, who used to work for the CBC and is a student of 18th century music. Burns also sits on the board of the Canadian National Institute of the Blind which is celebrating 100 years in 2018.

“We came up with this program because of this extraordinary gentleman John Taylor and because of the centenary of the CNIB,” Mallon said.

Telling this visionary story of Light and Sight needed a musical connection, so the concert will feature music by Bach and by Handel, along with pieces by Sir Ernest MacMillan and a work by the winner of this year’s Thirteen Strings composition competition.

It’s not clear whether Taylor was a complete quack, Mallon said.

“He was certainly doing eye operations all over the place but he would leave town before anything really happened. He was a showman. He would operate on people in village squares and everybody would come and watch. He’d get paid and then he’d run.”

Taylor even caught the attention of Samuel Johnson who said of him: “His career was an example of how far impudence may carry ignorance.”

For Mallon, the added benefit of this concert is that it offers a chance to reach out to a new community and to present music and story together.  

In the concert, actors play Taylor, Bach and Handel with a script written by Burns.

“Bach and Handel actually never met in real life,” Mallon said, “but in our performance they do meet. We surround those three characters with the music.”

Bach was near the end of his life when Taylor blinded him. Handel was still writing an oratorio called Jephtha when he was operated on. Handel, wealthy in his own time, did have a copyist named John Christopher Smith, who helped him with the scores, even as his eyesight was failing.

In the concert this Friday evening, the pieces being played do not reflect the therapeutic qualities of music, Mallon said.

“It’s more a commentary on what has happened to these men. We tell this story at the end about Bach taking the baths and when he came back his wife was dead and buried. He didn’t know. His kids were running about the house.”

Music history is full of such poignant stories. 

The concert will feature two Brandenburg Concertos, Nos. 3 and 5 that ar not heard very often Mallon said. Also on the bill is Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 4. 

Sir Ernest MacMillan is on the bill because he is Canadian and he was a prisoner of war during the First World War, so there is a connection to the time when the CNIB was formed. Thirteen Strings will play his Notre Seigneur en pauvre and À Saint-Malo.

The CNIB was formed in response to the many who were blinded during the Great War and those who were also left sightless by the Halifax explosion in 1917.

The evening ends with a performance of Dawn by University of Ottawa music student Noora Nakhei. The five minute long piece won the Thirteen Strings/uOttawa commission competition. This year’s competition theme was Light, Mallon said. The winner receives $1,300 and the piece is performed in concert by Thirteen Strings.  

After the show the audience will be encouraged to view an exhibition that outlines the CNIB’s history.

Mallon, who will narrate the night as well as conduct, says the orchestra is expecting to welcome members of the CNIB community to the show on Friday night. Guide dogs will be allowed into the hall, he says.

“I have been promised that the dogs, when on duty, behave themselves completely but I’m waiting for the odd howl to come up every now and then.”

Thirteen Strings Presents The Subject Is Light
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: May 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.